Verdicts to be read for 2 men accused in Indio carjack killing

Men could face the death penalty if convicted

POSTED: 06:29 AM PST Feb 19, 2013 
INDIO, Calif. -

Verdicts will be read Tuesday afternoon in the trial of two men charged in the robbery-motivated slaying of a 55-year-old Indio resident.

      Carlos Contreras, 34, and Daniel Cervantes, 35, could face the death  penalty if convicted of the May 7, 2008, murder of Daniel Kuzawa, and jurors  find true special circumstance allegations of murder in commission of a  robbery, kidnapping and carjacking.

      Both defendants -- who are also charged with committing other crimes  over a two-week span -- were tried together, but with separate juries. The  verdicts for both men will be read at 1:30 p.m.

      Contreras' jury returned a verdict on Thursday after about two days of  deliberations. Cervantes' panel reached a decision on Feb. 5. The court doesn't  conduct trial proceedings on Fridays and was closed Monday for Presidents' Day.

      Kuzawa was found by a field worker. He had been shot at close range in  the head and chest on the dirt shoulder of Pierce Street south of Airport  Boulevard. His wrists and neck were bound with electrical cable.

      Deputy District Attorney Manny Bustamante alleged that Cervantes held a  gun on the victim, while Contreras tied up Kuzawa in his own truck as he  repeatedly pleaded for his life.

      Kuzawa's credit card was used at a Shell station in Coachella early on  the morning of May 7. Surveillance video from the Fastrip station, where an ATM  transaction was traced, showed Kuzawa's truck pulling up to the pumps.  Cervantes, who was driving, got out to speak to Contreras, who was riding in  another vehicle, Bustamante said.

      Contreras was arrested that night, after authorities stopped a vehicle  in which he was a passenger. While trying to flee, he disposed of a gun  believed to be the weapon used to kill Kuzawa, Bustamante said.

       Cervantes told investigators he was present during Kuzawa's ordeal but  tried to minimize his involvement, the prosecutor said.

      Contreras had gunshot residue on his hands and was in possession of  Kuzawa's wallet, a round of ammunition and a credit card belonging to a man he  allegedly shot a few days before, the prosecutor said. He was also carrying  Kuzawa's insurance and Costco cards, Bustamante said.

      A search of the Coachella home where Contreras lived with his parents  turned up an ATM receipt from the Fastrip station and spools of cable of the  type used to bind Kuzawa, according to Bustamante.

      Contreras' attorney, Gail O'Rane, said in her closing argument that  fingerprints found on Kuzawa's truck and the truck belonging to Walter Garrett - - who he is accused of a shooting during a carjacking a few days before Kuzawa  was killed -- didn't match Contreras' fingerprints.

      She also said there was one particle of gunshot residue found on each of  Contreras' hands, and an expert testified there was no way to tell for  certain that Contreras fired a gun.

      "You can't really determine what happened; the evidence doesn't tell  you that. (The prosecution) is asking you to speculate and guess," she told  the jury.

      She said evidence showed Cervantes, not Contreras, was connected to the  crimes, and there was "reasonable doubt" of her client's involvement.

      Cervantes' attorney, John Hemmer, said his client told investigators  that he thought he and Contreras were hitching a ride with Kuzawa. He claimed  Contreras pulled out a gun and forced Kuzawa into his own truck. Later,  Cervantes started driving, Hemmer said.

      "You heard Mr. Cervantes (say) -- `I didn't tie him up, I was driving'  ... You heard Mr. Cervantes, `I was trying to get Contreras not to kill him, I  tried,"' Hemmer said in his closing argument.

      He said Cervantes "adamantly" denied shooting Kuzawa and DNA found on  the alleged murder weapon excluded his client as the shooter. The defense  attorney said there was also no evidence Cervantes tied up Kuzawa or trained a  gun on him. "So where was his participation?"

      "(Kuzawa) just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and  Mr. Cervantes happened to be with the wrong person at the wrong time,"  Hemmer told the jurors.

      Contreras is accused of shooting Garrett in the jaw and shoulder and  stealing his pickup truck near Dillon Road and Vista Del Sur in Coachella on  May 3, 2008. The pickup was later found burned in Indio.

      On April 28, 2008, Contreras allegedly robbed a woman while she was  sitting in her car in Palm Desert. He allegedly dropped Sandra Jaramillo off in  the Thermal area and threatened to kill her if she looked back, Bustamante  said. The vehicle was later found abandoned in Coachella.

      Cervantes is also accused of robbing and kidnapping a Thermal-area man,  Diego Chavez, on May 11, 2008, and having another man's check in his possession  when he was arrested on May 22. At the prosecution's request, the judge  dismissed allegations that Cervantes tied up and robbed a La Quinta man and his  friend at the man's home on May 4, 2008.